Diving Deep in Japan

Chris on Isseki
Our diving expert and tour leader of the new, ‘Diving Japan’ group tour, is pretty good at getting beneath the surface.  Chris Knox lived in Osaka for four years, teaching English and has since worked all over the world as a Dive Master. When he moved to Japan, he  travelled extensively throughout, taking every chance to see and experience the complexity of this unique country and didn’t take long to make contact with some local divers. Regular diving days at local sites quickly became an intrinsic part of Chris’s life, but it was only after his first trip to Okinawa that he realised the true extent of the diving available. Chris is currently working with Dive Quest, but is also keen to get back to Japan for the tour in February.

Here are his top five reasons to dive in Japan –

Isseki Corridor
Yonaguni
At the end of the Okinawan islands and officially the Westernmost point of Japan, Yonaguni is certainly far from the beaten track. The mysterious underwater ruins however make this a very special place for divers. Although the debate over the origins of these unique structures continues, the experience of drifting over the central plaza and along the squared off terraces will impress even the most sceptical members of the group. Other dive sites in the area offer a network of limestone tunnels as well as the chance to see hammerheads and a myriad of other marine life.

manta

Manta
There is nothing quite like watching a Manta ray cruising effortlessly through the water above you, except maybe watching a group of them. Although mantas are spotted in many places the rich feeding grounds and the cleaning station at Manta scramble on Ishigaki draw them in on an almost daily basis.

Mosaic Nudibranch
Variety of marine life
From colour-changing cuttlefish to tiny benthic crabs, macro lovers will have plenty to keep them entertained. Many of these creatures are small and well-camouflaged but with an observant guide you will have the chance to see an impressive range of weird and wonderful critters.

Standing Rocks
Variety of dive sites
Dramatic volcanic topography, a colourful maritime history and a mixture of temperate and tropical sea conditions give Japan an amazing variety of diving options. In some areas, it is possible to find temperate and tropical species on the same dive site. Japan is known for it’s amazing natural beauty and the sights beneath the waves are no exception.

Dive boat
Small scale diving
Diving operations in Japan are relatively small scale so you can expect to have many of the sites to yourself. This is especially true around Okinawa where the remoteness of the archipelago and the small number of dive boats means that even the most famous sites rarely have many divers.

Take a look at our ‘Dive Japan’ for February 2016 or we would be happy to sort you out a tailored trip for you and your dive buddies.

The Railway Museum

Last year Japan Railway celebrated 50 years since the inauguration of the world-famous Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Originally built in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen made travel faster (cutting the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka in half) as well as rapidly expanding the number of passengers between the two major economic hubs of Japan. The Shinkansen is still going strong today. It runs in an almost ridiculously timely manner. It is still considered a major event not merely in Japanese railway history, but as an announcement to the world of Japanese capabilities less than two decades after emerging from the ashes of the Second World War. In light of this fifty-year benchmark, I made my way to the Railway Museum (tetsudo-hakubutsukan, entrance 1000yen) at Omiya Station, 35 minutes north of Shinjuku Station, Tokyo on the Saikyo Line.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

The museum itself is extremely impressive. It stands within an enormous modern structure, and the moment you get off the ‘New Shuttle Line’ (one stop north from Omiya Station, 3 minutes), you step into an entirely railway-themed world. The walkway leading towards the main entrance is lined with historical Shinkansen timetables. The timetable for my local line has barely changed in the three decades since I was born. In order to enter you must pay with either your regular train card, or purchase a day ticket from a dispenser, before walking through the exact same gates you would see in any train station in Japan. The rest areas include platform-style seating. And so on. Outside there is an area for children, as well as empty train carriages, which have been heated to allow space for eating lunch. Many people who travel to Japan come to love the ‘ekiben’ (eki meaning station, and ben short for bento, or ‘lunchbox’) which are sold in the museum and can be enjoyed within these carriages.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Inside the museum there is one hall full of original train carriages stretching throughout the entirety of Japanese railway history. This exhibition includes the first Shinkansen train of course, but also the first passenger carriage, the first refrigerated carriage, and perhaps most interestingly, the Imperial Train carriages used exclusively by the Emperor and his family. As an Englishman, I was taken by the amount of Meiji period trains that were built by English companies. Preston, Leeds, Lancashire. 1881, 1878, 1871. The Meiji government of this period essentially selected the best assets of other nations to imitate in order to aid its modernization. A German-style military, French-style Law, and evidently British railways (as well as a British Parliamentary system, of course). The spirits of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson would be beaming with pride.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Aside from the numerous train carriages on display, there is an hourly exhibition by staff in which an (incredibly loud) steam locomotive horn is blown at full blast and three drivers dressed in traditional train uniform wave to the crowd while the entire train rotates. There are scale models, and plenty of information on the history of trains in Japan. Most exciting of all, however, are the train simulators. In this section of the museum you are able to feel the thrill of operating one of half a dozen actual trains on real life routes. I simulated the route of the Yamanote train that circles the major stations of inner Tokyo. In a just a handful of bleary seconds I moved from utterly confused to a sort of James Bond figure exuding confidence to the detriment of my imaginary passengers. I went for a quick sit down afterwards.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Where the Railway Museum truly comes into its own is in its versatility. It is a perfect spot not only for those interested in trains or history in general, but also for families with children. There is space to run, its interactive, informative, and there are plenty of places to eat. It is really a marvelous museum. Omiya itself is also well worth a visit if you are interested in visiting the Bonsai Tree Museum or Hikawa Shrine (Emperor Meiji’s favourite shrine) and is famous for both football and rugby. Since Omiya Station is a bullet train stop en route from Tokyo to Nagano and Kanazawa, it makes a good option to stop by at the Railway Museum before continuing your onward journey to either of those cities. Give it a go and discover the geek in new – you will love it.

Getting around Japan

Japanese bullet train

Japanese bullet train

So you’re going on holiday to Japan. One of the first questions you’ll probably ask yourself is: how are you going to get around?

Japan has one of the safest, cleanest, fastest, most efficient, punctual and convenient public transportation networks in the world, comprising city subways, cross-country trains, bullet trains, highway buses, local buses, funicular railways, cable cars, ferries, monorails, domestic flights, taxis… the list goes on! But for the most part, the best way to get around Japan is undoubtedly by train.

This post will cover all the main forms of transport that you might use on a holiday to Japan.

 

TRAINS

The Japan Railways (JR) group is Japan’s largest train network and comprises six regional rail companies: JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu and JR Freight. Combined, these networks cover the whole of Japan’s four main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, encompassing a variety of subway lines, local railways and bullet trains.

In addition to the extensive JR network, there are numerous private railway companies operating throughout the country (more in-depth information about which can be found here).

 

Shinkansen in rural setting

Shinkansen in rural setting

Bullet train

Ah, the famous bullet train. How I could rhapsodise about its speed, efficiency and general enjoyableness. Oh wait – I did!

The JR bullet train, or Shinkansen as it is known in Japanese, was 50 years old last year and is an amazing feat of engineering, whisking passengers across distances of hundreds of miles at speeds of up to 320 kph (200 mph). Not only is it speedy (and hella punctual, with an annual average delay measured in seconds), it’s an experience in itself – the seats are comfy, the staff wear cute uniforms and bow whenever they leave the carriage, and the edibles from the food trolley are actually – well – edible.

I know I say this about a lot of things, but you really haven’t been to Japan until you’ve been on the Shinkansen. And with a Japan Rail Pass (see below), you get unlimited journeys across the whole network!

Operation areas of the regional JR companies and bullet train lines (source: japanguide.com)

Operation areas of the regional JR companies and bullet train lines (source: japanguide.com)

 

Subway

At first look, an underground railway network such as that of Tokyo can seem bewildering – but once you get used to it they are very simple and easy to use. Nearly every station will have subway maps with the station names in English, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find your way around.

 

SONY DSC

Tokyo Subway

If you plan to use the subway system whilst in Japan (and we recommend that you do!), to make your life easier we suggest that you purchase an IC card (equivalent to a London Oyster card). These are sold under various different brand names in different cities (Pasmo and Suica in Tokyo, Manaca in Nagoya, Icoca and PiTaPa in Osaka, for example), but the cards are in fact interchangeable – a Manaca will work in Tokyo, while a Pasmo will work in Fukuoka, and so on. All you need to do is top up, then touch in and out of the ticket barriers at the beginning and end of each journey.

Besides subways, the cards can also be used on most overground trains and buses in the majority of Japanese cities. For more information on IC cards and their compatibility, see here. And remember, if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can save money by using it on JR-operated subway lines!

If you are purchasing a Japan Rail Pass from InsideJapan Tours on our website, you can also order an IC card at the same time.

Tokyo subway map - less daunting than it might look, promise!

Tokyo subway map – less daunting than it might look, promise!

 

Local train

Japanese local trains are just normal, everyday trains. It can be useful to familiarise yourself with the categories of train that are available – if only to avoid getting on a super-slow variety that stops at every stop!

Local trainsThese are:

Local (kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha) – Very slow! These trains stop at every station.

Rapid (kaisoku) – Misleadingly, these are not the most rapid trains. They cost the same as local trains but skip some of the stations.

Express (kyuko) – Express trains skip more stations than the rapid trains, and may be more expensive.

Limited Express (tokkyu) – These are the fastest local trains, only stopping at major stations. You will usually need to pay an extra limited express fee if you use these trains.

If you keep an eye on the screens on the train platform, you’ll find that most Japanese stations will display the train categories in English as well as Japanese.

If you are purchasing a rail ticket at a Japanese train station, all you need to do is find your destination station on a map and look at the little number beside the station name. This number is your fare. Put your money into the machine, select the appropriate fare and hey presto – you’ll receive a generic ticket that’ll take you as far as you need to go.

 

Japan Rail Pass

If you’ve already begun researching your Japan holiday, you’ll probably already have heard of the Japan Rail Pass. This extremely economical deal promises unlimited travel on the entirety of the Japan Rail (JR) network (which includes all bullet trains except the “Nozomi” and “Mizuho”, certain subway lines, and most local and cross-country rail services), and is available for periods of 7, 14 or 21 days at either ordinary class or “green” class (first-class).

JR Pass prices correct as of 11 Feb 2015

JR Pass prices correct as of 11 Feb 2015

To put these prices in perspective, a one-way journey on the bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima costs about half that of an adult 7-day Japan Rail Pass (ordinary class) – so if you’re travelling to Japan it’s really a no-brainer: buy a Japan Rail Pass!

You can see a full list of prices in pounds sterling and purchase a Japan Rail Pass at face value on our website.

 

BUSES

Japan has an excellent network of local buses within cities and highway buses that cover cross-country journeys.

 

Local buses

We usually recommend using subways and trains instead of buses in Japan, but in some cities where the subway network is not as comprehensive as that of Tokyo, taking the bus might be necessary. The most notable location in which you’ll find this is the case is Kyoto.

On most local Japanese buses, you should enter through the back door (if there is one), pick up a numbered ticket from a small machine by the door, and keep your eye on the screen above the driver. This screen will match your ticket number with the fare you need to pay. When you get off, pay at the front of the bus – using the changing machine beforehand if you don’t have the correct change. In some cities, however, you pay a flat fare for wherever you’re travelling.

To make things easier, cities in which buses are the main mode of transport will usually offer one-day passes for the bus systems. These are extremely useful for tourists – so if you are in a city without a subway network, ask at tourist information to find out the best card to buy.

 

Highway buses

Highway buses are an inexpensive alternative to trains and cover long distances over the whole of Japan. However, as the Japan Rail Pass offers such outstanding value, you’d be a fool to plump for buses!

The only instance in which we’d recommend using a highway bus is if you’re going to be resident in Japan for over 90 days, making you ineligible for a Japan Rail Pass.

Highway bus (photo: japanguide.com)

Highway bus (photo: japanguide.com)

RENTAL CAR

As much as we do love trains, there are some locations in Japan where rail travel doesn’t quite cut the mustard. The main locations where this is the case are Hokkaido (Japan’s northern island) and Okinawa (the southern, subtropical archipelago).

Hokkaido does have a rail network, but as the island is sparsely populated and consists largely of untamed wilderness, it is far from comprehensive. Driving in Hokkaido, on the other hand, is a complete breeze – long, empty roads, dramatic scenery, and the ability to make detours and stops whenever you like make this by far the best way to travel.

The various islands that make up Okinawa, meanwhile, do not have a rail network at all (well, there’s a single, one-track monorail in Naha – the prefectural capital – but that hardly counts). There is a bus system, but take it from me – it’s an infinitely better idea to rent a car. As in Hokkaido, the rental process is easy and the driving is an absolute doddle – plus it allows you to explore places that you might never have found if you’d taken the boring old bus.

Renting a car on mainland Japan is also a viable option if you feel particularly inclined to motor travel as opposed to rail – but be aware that driving long distances can be pretty dull, as Japanese motorways do just look pretty much like motorways anywhere else…  Probably best use the train.

…and remember, get your International Drivers Permit before you go to Japan!

Rental car

Rental car

DOMESTIC FLIGHT

These days, with budget operators such as Peach Aviation offering ridiculously cheap fares between destinations in Japan and surrounding countries, domestic flights are most definitely an option if you’re planning to visit far-flung corners of the archipelago. You are most likely to use a domestic airline if you’re planning to visit the islands of Okinawa, Yakushima or Hokkaido – but there are plenty of other routes available. Remember, however, that flying entails an awful lot of hanging around and faffing about – so if you are making a long-distance journey on Honshu or Kyushu Island, it’s usually easier and less stressful (yep, you guessed it) just to get the train.

Example flight map by Peach Aviation. Other airlines operate additional services.

Example flight map by Peach Aviation. Other airlines operate additional services.

Running in Japan – Nakanoshima

Lanes of Nakanoshima

I’ve written a few times for this blog about running whilst in Japan; Osaka at dawn and the Tokyo Imperial Palace circuit. It seems fitting then that I write about this morning’s little four miler, a beautiful jaunt through the tiny lanes of Nakanoshima.

If you don’t know where this is, you’re not alone. Nakanoshima, known locally as Ama, is part of the Oki Islands. Lying about 43 miles off the coast of Shimane Prefecture, these are relatively unheard of both for foreign and Japanese tourists alike. Volcanic in origin they protrude from the sea like dragon’s teeth and are clothed so dense with verdant vegetation that they remind me of the Lost World. Though the biggest creature in there is probably a rabbit, the forests look like they support so much more.

Nakonoshima Water

The largest of the islands is Dogo, where I spent a night, but Nakanoshima is much smaller (with an area of just 20 sq. miles) and along with Nishinoshima and Chiburijima (where I’ll be heading to soon) are part of a large caldera and are known collectively as Douzen. With no virtually no large buildings, no trains, no convenience stores and only 2500 residents it feels a world away from mainland Japan in both appearance and experience.

I set off from my lodging, the delightful Minshuku Tajimaya, ambled next to rice paddies in the midst of being harvested before turning abruptly and steeply through the woods. The effort was rewarded when I found myself on a tall bridge that gave way to lovely coastal views, and I was surprised to see a beautiful osprey perched on a nearby tree. Meandering downhill I hit the coast line which I followed, the water calm like a painting, the only disruption a steely grey heron looking for an early morning fish. Once I hit two miles I turned around and retraced my steps. No cars, no people, what a pleasant way to start the day.

Beautiful Nakanoshima
Let us know if you would like to explore the not-so-well explored Oki islands for a slice of rural Japanese culture and serenity. The Oki Islands also feature on the Rural Japan Explorer tour.

 

What to do with 48 hours in Tokyo

Almost every visitor to Japan will spend at least a couple of days in Tokyo, the country’s vast, gleaming & utterly bewitching capital. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rhapsodised in print about Tokyo (no, seriously – you can’t even imagine), and with good reason – it is an amazing place.

The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area covers an area of 13,500 square kilometres, and is by far and away the most populous metropolitan area in the world – with an estimated 37,883,000 inhabitants (according to a 2014 UN report). The city itself, meanwhile, is nothing short of enormous – with a multitude of centres, each with its own unique character. It is a well-worn travel cliché, but you could spend literally years here and never see it all.

Tokyo Time 065

So, given just 48 hours in the capital, what should you do?

Pose this question to the team at InsideJapan Tours and, likely as not, you’ll get a different answer from each person. That is the beauty of Tokyo. But if you want to know what I think – what I would actually do with 48 hours in Tokyo – well then, read on!

DAY 1

Begin the day by making your way to Shibuya, a shopping mecca for young people and home to the iconic “scramble crossing”, where crowds swarm across the world’s most famous intersection under the neon gaze of screens, signs and advertisements. The scramble crossing is located directly outside the Shibuya Station’s Hachiko Exit, where you’ll also find the much-beloved statue of Hachi – a faithful dog who waited outside Shibuya Station every day for his master, even after the owner’s death. A good tip that many tourists don’t know about is to head into the station building and up the escalators, where you can get a good view of the crossing from the windows.

Shinjuku scramble crossing

Shinjuku scramble

After visiting the crossing, I suggest heading into the shops. If you’re interested in fashion, Shibuya 109 is the place to go – but personally I would spend an hour or so checking out the Tokyu Hands Department Store, where you can find everything from stationery to fancy dress. If there was something weird and wonderful you wanted to buy in Japan, the chances are that you’ll find it here. I particularly like browsing the bizarre beauty treatments on the pharmacy floor!

Happy face trainer?

Happy face trainer?

When you’ve had your fill of shopping, I suggest finding a good ramen bar for lunch today. Ramen, thin noodles served in a flavoursome broth with meat and vegetables, is a staple of Japanese life, and you absolutely cannot visit Japan without getting a taste. It’s also very affordable, so you’ve no reason not to. Kiraku (opened in 1952) is a famously good ramen bar in the Shibuya area, or you could try to equally good Suzuran or Usagi.

Slurping up ramen

Slurping up ramen

Map of Shibuya

After lunch, head back to the station and hop on a train to Harajuku (it’s just one stop on the JR Yamanote Line). From here, take a walk down Takeshita Street to browse the eclectic array of shops and hope to spot some of Tokyo’s most outlandishly dressed teenagers! It’s fascinating, even if you’re not into shopping. There’s an excellent second-hand kimono shop nearby called Chicago if you’re after vintage Japanese clothing, and don’t forget to stop at the Daiso at the top of the street for an introduction to another Japanese institution – the 100 yen shop.

Teenager in Harajuku

Teenager in Harajuku

After walking through Harajuku, head back to the station and across the tracks to explore the large, peaceful, wooded area that contains the Olympic Stadium, Yoyogi Park, and Meiji Shrine – where, if you’re lucky, you may spot a Shinto wedding ceremony in progress.

Shinto wedding at Meiji Shrine

Shinto wedding at Meiji Shrine

Map of Harajuku

By this point you may be in need of a rest, in which case I recommend hopping back on the JR Yamanote Line and riding the two stops to Shinjuku Station. Nearby is Shinjuku Gyoen, perhaps the city’s most beautiful park, and the ideal place to stop for a rest (weather permitting, of course!). If you’re not the park-going kind and would prefer something a rather weirder, I suggest visiting one of the area’s notorious Maid Cafés, where you can play master of the house and be served an (expensive) coffee by a girl dressed as a Victorian maid. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly an experience!

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

Whether you’ve decided to hit the park or the Maid Café, my next stop would be the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, where you can ascend to the top of one of the pair of skyscrapers for spectacular views across the city (and Mount Fuji, if you’re lucky). It may not be as tall as the Skytree, but it’s free!

By the time you’ve accomplished all this (allowing plenty of time for aimless wandering), it’s about time for the maddest dinner you’ve ever had in your life. Tokyo is known for its fabulous food, so it’s rather a shame to head somewhere where the food is so bad (yes – it’s bad) – but Shinjuku’s Robot Restaurant is one place where the food is not the main attraction. If you’ve ever wanted to see an electric cabaret performed by bikini-clad girls, robots, neon tanks, sharks and more – you’ve come to the right place. Not to be missed – trust me.

Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant

Buzzing from your evening at the Robot Restaurant, there’s no better place to head for an evening of drinks than Golden Gai. Also located in Shinjuku, Golden Gai is a tiny slice of old Japan amongst the skyscrapers – consisting of just six impossibly narrow alleyways packed with over 200 tiny bars, clubs and restaurants, this is a truly unmissable Tokyo experience.

Tiny Shinjuku restaurant

Tiny Shinjuku restaurant

Map of Shinjuku

 

DAY 2

Assuming you’re not bedridden after your night in Golden Gai, this morning it’s time for one of my very favourite Tokyo experiences: Tsukiji Fish Market. As I discussed in a recent post, I’m not all that keen on getting up mega-early to see the tuna auctions, but I do highly recommend checking out the inner market when it opens to the public at 9am. It’s also the perfect excuse to stop off for a late sushi breakfast – I recommend Umai Sushi Kan opposite the Suijinja Shrine for its relaxed atmosphere.

Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji Market

After breakfast, my next stop is the beautiful Hamarikyu Gardens, just next to the market. This is one is a little-known gem of a place, where you can have green tea and a traditional sweet at the teahouse on the lake – just like Prince William!

Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu Gardens

Map of Tsukiji area

After relaxing at Hamarikyu, hop on the water bus (which departs from within the garden) and take a pleasant ride along the river to Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional district and home to Senso-ji Shrine. Here you can pick up souvenirs at the little market stalls, sample a bit of street food, and even visit Kappabashi-dori – or “Kitchen Street” – where you can buy cooking supplies and the plastic replica food that is so ubiquitous in Japan.

Senso-ji pagoda at night

Senso-ji pagoda at night

For lunch, I suggest tucking into some hearty okonomiyaki – an extremely popular (and cheap) type of cabbage-based savoury pancake. Doesn’t sound too appetising? Well, you’re wrong. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t loved it. My favourite okonomiyaki restaurant in Asakusa is Sometaro, where you cook your own pancake on a hotplate in the centre of your table, surrounded by lovely traditional décor.

Tucking into okonomiyaki at Sometaro

Tucking into okonomiyaki at Sometaro

After lunch, if you didn’t manage to squeeze in the Tokyo Metropolitan Buildings yesterday, you could head to the Tokyo Skytree for fab views of the city before hopping on the train to Akihabara (two stops on the Asakusa Line to Asakuabashi Station, then one stop on the JR Line to Akihabara).

Akihabara is known as Japan’s “electric town” and is the spiritual homeland of Japan’s otaku (nerd) population. Surrounded by towering neon buildings you can browse electronics stores, manga shops and huge buildings packed with gaming memorabilia, before heading to one of the area’s vast arcades to have a go on the games – or just watch the pros. There are many Maid Cafés in this area, so if you didn’t manage that yesterday you could easily fit it in today.

Tour leader William enjoying the arcade games

Tour leader William enjoying the arcade games

For dinner, a visit to an izakaya (traditional Japanese restaurant) is a must. Izakaya are often called “Japanese pubs”, but they’re actually nothing like. Food is served tapas-style to be shared with friends, often ordered throughout the meal using an electronic screen at your table. Beer and sake flow freely – and there are often nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) plans available. These restaurants range from the amazingly cheap to the astronomically expensive, so there is something to suit everyone! And it’s a great place to try out some interesting Japanese dishes.

If going to a proper izakaya is a daunting prospect for you, we can arrange an izakaya experience with an InsideJapan tour leader, who can guide you through the ins and outs of Japanese etiquette and help you make your orders.

A Japanese izakaya

A Japanese izakaya

Finally, your izakaya visit should have left you well lubricated for that most quintessential of Japanese hobbies: karaoke. If you’re imagining singing your heart out in front of a crowd of people – think again! The Japanese way is to rent a booth with friends and sing away in privacy, accompanied by plenty of beer.

Map of Asakusa & Akihabara

My Favourite Place in Japan – Caitlin

What is your favourite place in Japan?

Hi, I’m Caitlin, and I just started working for the US office of InsideJapan. When asked about my favourite place in Japan I can never come up with just one answer. So many jump into my head, from Asahiyama Zoo in Hokkaido to Himeji’s best ramen shop, ‘Koba & More’, and the various venues that make up the music scene in Kobe. Today, I want to talk a little about what’s so great about the little town I lived in for 3 years, Aioi.

Aioi is a little city in south western Hyogo Prefecture, just 20 minutes away from Himeji and its beautiful castle on the JR Sanyo Line. At first glance there’s not much to do in Aioi—unlike many small cities, it doesn’t even have a shopping arcade near the station. But day-to-day life in Aioi is very charming, and it’s festivals are hidden treasures.

In late May, when it’s starting to feel like summer without the stickiness that comes post-rainy season, dragon boats line up in the harbour in preparation for the Peron Festival. The festival is two days long, and these dragon boats will race on the mornings of both days. There’s also a fantastic parade where the locals dress up as samurai and ninjas!

Caitlin and friends in a park in Aioi.

Caitlin and friends in a park in Aioi.

Scarecrows

Scarecrows

 

Keeping the birds away

Keeping the birds away

 

Fireworks at the Peron Festival.

Fireworks at the Peron Festival.

The Peron Festival Parade.

The Peron Festival Parade.

But the real main event is the fireworks show, which happens on the first night. So many people gather to watch these fireworks shoot up from the harbour that some have to take their seats two miles away! As soon as the show ends, the train station is just as packed as Tokyo on a weekday morning. If you’re staying in Himeji, it’s a better idea to stop by a bar or an izakaya for a drink and take a later train than to brave the post-show crowds.

Another lovely event is the Autumn Leaves festival in early November, which is more often referred to by locals as the Scarecrow Festival. In the weeks before this quiet celebration of the season, Aioi’s students, workers, and farmers carefully construct scarecrows representing their favourite persons and characters from the past year. Local politicians walk around and judge the scarecrows, and the winners get a small monetary prize. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see some amateur art and get a feel for what is popular in Japan!

It may not be the most exciting place to go, but I think Aioi has a lot to offer those who are curious about real daily life in Japan.

Japan Family Travels according to the Ford Family

The Ford family in Japan

Janne Ford and her family recently visited Japan at peak cherry blossom time, taking in the shades of pink in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Takayama,giving them a good taster of the country.  It is often quite a task for anyone planning a family holiday, to get something that everyone in the family will enjoy, but Japan easily came up with the goods for Mum, Dad, the 18 and 16 year old lads and 11 year old girl.  Enough from me, here’s Janne and the Ford family Japan adventure…

 

As I sit here writing on this showery April day I wish I could be transported back to that first exciting afternoon at Zozo-ji temple, just ten minutes walk from our hotel at Shiba Park. Blue skies and cherry blossom…. everything we could have hoped for on our first day in Tokyo. Everywhere we looked was a visual feast.

The Ford family in Tokyo

With Tokyo tower making a dramatic backdrop to the temple and the smoke wafting through the cherry blossom from the huge incense burner, it was difficult to know where to look first. I spotted someone in a kimono; the boys spied ‘pocari sweat’ in a vending machine. As is the way with our family, camera phones were out and we instantly split in several different directions!

 

We only had a few days to spend in Tokyo. The city is vast and we realized we couldn’t possibly see everything on our list. We decided to investigate Asakusa, home to Tokyo’s most sacred temple. We all loved it. Not only is the temple simply spectacular in terms of its colour, its garden, its pagoda and shrines, but also for the hustle and bustle of the surrounding ancient streets full of traders, tourists and worshippers. It feels authentic and timeless to visit shops that only sell hairpins or paper crafts – or to take a ride in a rickshaw through the back streets eating a green tea ice cream!

We chose a tiny restaurant at random for lunch and were shown to a table for tempura. It seems to be the area for tempura restaurants and it was delicious. We are all still craving it!

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Whilst in Japan, we wanted to experience an authentic stay in a traditional ryokan. For this, the Ichinoyu Gora in Hakone, our next stop, was perfect. With paper screens, roll-out futons and cotton yukata to wear, we were all set for the ryokan experience! We all agreed that the food was amazing. Would we choose rice and miso soup for breakfast at home? No, definitely not! But at Ichinoyu Gora, a tray full of exquisitely presented pickles, algae, fish, rice and steaming bowls of miso made a perfect start to the day. That and the hot spring tub on our balcony! We have to thank the InsideJapan Info-Pack for recommending a bakery just down the track at Miyanoshita though. Our Western cravings for something doughy and a cappuccino had kicked in by mid morning.

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Although Mt Fuji was shrouded in cloud during our visit, we still took the cable cars to the viewing area and visited the Hakone Outdoor Sculpture Park on the way back. This has to be one of the best art museums we have ever been to. The mountains make a dramatic backdrop rain or shine; this is an easy way to spend a day with children of all ages and has the added bonus of a large canteen-style buffet restaurant with western food options for those craving it.

Kyoto was our next stop and again we had opted for an authentic experience in a traditional Japanese house rather than a hotel. We had booked for a guide on our first morning, and the lovely Kimmee took us to the beautiful Nijo Castle. She was very knowledgeable and we learnt more from her about the history of Nijo than we would have by going it alone. After the castle, she took us to a kimono shop in the old part of town (because we asked) and recommended a lovely restaurant for lunch.

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We had long planned to visit Himeji Castle from Kyoto, and we were just so lucky that our visit coincided with the reopening after years of refurbishment. About an hour away by train, the ‘white egret’ castle is stunning, particularly when surrounded by blossom and blue skies. As it was the weekend, hanami (flower-viewing) parties were in full swing, but we braved the crowds and all the wonderful distractions and headed straight for the castle. We weren’t disappointed – it was one of our most memorable days in Japan.

Of all the cities we visited, we felt we could have spent longer in Kyoto (Kyoto Station itself is worth spending a good couple of hours in). Unfortunately, our two days were soon over and it was time to head back to the station and on to Hiroshima and Miyajima Island.

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My 16-year-old would say this was his favourite place. The Peace Memorial museum was ‘eye-opening’ and very poignant. Whilst my husband and teenage boys were totally absorbed in the history, it was too much for our 11-year-old daughter so we whiled away the time in the Peace Park. Whilst you couldn’t have a trip to Hiroshima without acknowledging the absolute devastation of the past, the city has so much else to offer in terms of restaurants and shopping and we had lots of fun here.

Miyajima Island, just a short ferry ride away, was a real highlight of the whole trip (and the main reason we chose to stay in Hiroshima). Again, shrouded in mist, (we never saw the top of the mountain here either) the island is picture-perfect with the torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine being the main draw. The tame deer that eat anything (including our map) wander amongst the tourists, and the craft shops are filled with lovely artisan products that we hadn’t seen on the mainland. Away from the touristy waterfront, the Misen trail takes you to Daishi-on temple, which is as intriguing as it is beautiful. We reluctantly left Miyajima Island at nightfall and headed back to the mainland.

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Takayama was our home for the next two days. It was refreshing to leave behind the urban sprawl for a smaller town. We opted not to visit any temples whilst here as everyone was a bit ‘templed out’, but instead concentrated on the Hida Folk Village, which was great for kids. We were slightly out of season so seemed to have the place to ourselves. However, it had snowed that morning which may have had something to do with the lack of other tourists! We kept warm by making our own souvenirs in the craft centre. Again this was a really enjoyable hour or so, learning from two local women and chatting about the town.

Sadly, our holiday was nearly at an end and it was back to Tokyo for another two nights. This time on the Shinjuku side of the city, which is all bright lights and nightlife. To make the most of our last day, we followed an InsideJapan suggested itinerary from the Info-Pack, which took us back to Asakusa (more souvenir shopping and tempura) and a trip down the river. We finished the evening in Starbucks with our noses and cameras pressed to the window watching the madness of the famous Shibuya crossing. We left Tokyo knowing we couldn’t physically have packed any more in to the two weeks.

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I have only mentioned just a few of the highlights from each place and the InsideJapan Info-Pack proved invaluable for all kinds of tips and ‘must-sees’. There are countless more and we left Japan knowing we must go back. There is too much yet to be discovered!

 

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